Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent psychological disorder in the United States. Every year 19% of the population suffers from a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 31% of the population will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. Close to one half of people with an anxiety disorder also have a depressive disorder. The good news is that anxiety disorders (and depressive disorders) are highly treatable. In fact, anxiety disorders may have the best prognosis of any psychological disorder.

The word anxiety refers to mild nervousness and worry to excessive rumination, catastrophic thinking and panic. Some anxiety, worry and nervousness is normal and healthy but can be considered problematic when it begins to interfere with or impair your work or personal life.

Anxiety problems are characterized by changes in thinking, mood, behavior and physical functioning. The following diagram illustrates this.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an active, directive focused form of treatment that enables people to identify and change the thoughts (cognitions) and behaviors (avoidance, perfectionism, safety seeking) that are contributing to and maintaining their anxiety symptoms. There are multiple strategies for identifying and altering your unique thoughts and behaviors but Cognitive Behavior Therapy for anxiety often involves:

  • learning anxiety management strategies
  • developing a greater ability to tolerate symptoms associated with anxiety
  • acquiring the skills to identify and alter catastrophic thinking
  • gaining greater confidence in your ability to cope
  • understanding how to overcome avoidance behavior and approach what you are fearful of.

More information is available on specific anxiety disorders by clicking on any of the following tabs:

Social Anxiety & Treatment

Social anxiety is painful and anguishing. It can interfere with social functioning, relationships and career. Social anxiety is characterized by:

  • Marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.
  • Exposure to the feared situation almost always provokes anxiety or panic.
  • The person recognizes that the fear is excessive or unreasonable.
  • The feared social or performance situation are avoided or endured with intense anxiety or distress
  • The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress significantly interferes with the person’s normal routine, occupation or social functioning.

Social anxiety is a very prevalent psychological problem. Studies have found that approximately 40% of adults consider themselves shy to the point that it creates problems in their lives. 7 – 13% of people meet criteria for having social phobia.

Social anxiety consists of certain behaviors, thoughts, and physical reactions, combined with fear, anxiety or panic.

Thinking and Social Anxiety

When in a social situation (or thinking about going into a social; situation) people with social anxiety have thoughts (cognitions) that have to do with worry about being judged, scrutinized or looked at closely. Particular thoughts may include:

  • “They will think negatively of me”
  • “They will see that I’m nervous”
  • “They will see that I’m blushing”
  • “I won’t know what to say”
  • “I’ll sound stupid”
  • “They won’t like me
  • “They will understand how incompetent I really am”

These thoughts have the theme of a social danger or threat and are often accompanied by avoidance of situations where one might be judged. Avoidance is the behavior most often associated with social anxiety. Most people would not willingly or easily put themselves in a situation where they believe they will be judged negatively.

Physical Reactions and Social Anxiety

The Physical reactions or symptoms associated with social anxiety are:

  • Rapid Heart Beat
  • Breathing Changes
  • Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Dizziness

These physical reactions are a “fight or flight” response. Millions of years of evolution have created a finely tuned response to perceived danger. In this situation the body is preparing to deal with the perceived social danger or threat. Sometimes these physical responses actually improve our performance. At other times the physical response is so overwhelming that it interferes with doing our best.

Moods and Social Anxiety

The mood associated with social anxiety is fear or panic. When people with social anxiety go into a social situation or think about going into a social situation they often are overwhelmed with fear or panic which can intensify as the social situation approaches.

Importantly, these four areas (thoughts, moods, behaviors and physical functioning) operate in tandem. We don’t know for sure, and it may not matter, which of these areas occurs first or causes the social anxiety. What we do know is that there is a reciprocal interaction between these areas. Changes in any one of the areas (thoughts, moods, behaviors, physical functioning) will result in changes in the other three areas.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy of Social Anxiety

Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT) is an active, structured goal directed form of psychotherapy that targets thoughts (cognitions) and behaviors (avoidance) associated with social anxiety. In the context of a warm and trusting therapy relationship CBT helps clients look at difficult and painful experiences. In understanding these experiences clients can learn new skills, methods and strategies that may enable them to overcome their social anxiety. CBT can help people identify and alter the thoughts and behaviors associated with social anxiety.

The goal of CBT for social anxiety is often increased social interaction with minimal anxiety. Successful treatment may result in the ability to interact in any group or social situation without anxiety and with little or no concern about being evaluated or judged. Successful treatment may result in the elimination of avoidance behaviors.

In CBT of social anxiety disorder clients learn to identify, evaluate and change the automatic thoughts associated with their anxiety. For many people this results in a reduction of their anxiety and a greater sense of comfort in group and social settings.

The behavioral component of CBT for social anxiety disorder includes overcoming the avoidance associated with the anxiety. This can be done gradually and systematically. Overcoming avoided situations begins by creating a list of all situations in which the anxiety is likely to occur. This may include situations that you participate in with anxiety, situations you avoid or situations that you feel anxious just thinking about. After the list is developed each item is given a value of how anxiety producing it is. The item on the list that creates the most anxiety is given a value of 100 while the item at the bottom of the list is given a value of 1. Every other item on the list is given a value somewhere in between 1 and 100.

Utilizing the cognitive therapy and anxiety management skills that have been previously developed the client then begins the process of gradually approaching and exposing oneself to increasingly difficult (anxiety producing) situations. In these situations, in a systematic way, clients learn to manage, control, minimize or accept their anxiety. Often, the new thinking and anxiety management skills become more developed and powerful as the client works their way up the list of feared situations. This process continues until the most difficult situations can be experienced with a lack of or minimal amount of anxiety and a sense of comfort and confidence.

Social anxiety disorder is very treatable. Psychotherapy research studies have shown that CBT is a highly effective treatment for anxiety disorders in general and social anxiety in particular. The beneficial results are often achieved in 20 CBT sessions or less and appear to be durable in that the results are usually maintained even after the discontinuation of treatment.

Panic Disorder & Treatment (Panic Attacks)

Panic Disorder is the experience of panic attacks followed by ongoing concern and worry about having another panic attack and/or worry about the possible consequences of a panic attack. There may be avoidant behaviors associated with, and secondary to, the panic attacks. Panic attacks consist of:

  1. Heart palpitations or racing heart
  2. Sweating
  3. Trembling or shaking
  4. Sensations of shortness of breath or a smothering sensation
  5. Feeling of choking
  6. Chest pain or discomfort
  7. Nausea or abdominal distress
  8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
  9. Feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself
  10. Fear of losing control or going crazy
  11. Fear of dying
  12. Numbness or tingling sensation
  13. Chills or hot flushes (DSM IV-TR-Revised)

One to two percent of the population is likely to have a Panic Disorder at some point in their life. Often associated with a panic attack is a catastrophic misinterpretation of a physical sensation. For example, in response to a rapid heartbeat, a person with panic disorder may think:

  • “I’m having a heart attack.”

In response to a feeling of dizziness, a person with Panic Disorder may conclude:

  • “I’m having a stroke.”

These catastrophic misinterpretations further create anxiety which exacerbates the physical sensation and strengthens the catastrophic misinterpretation. The thoughts most often associated with panic include:

  • “I’m having a heart attack,”
  • “I’m having a stroke,”
  • “I’m out of control,”
  • “I’m going to die.”

In the past panic disorder has been thought of as a condition that was chronic or only treated with psychiatric medication. In the last 20-30 years new, highly effective cbt treatments for panic disorder have been developed, tested, and refined. The newest cbt treatments are not only effective in a relatively brief period of time but research has demonstrated a low relapse rate. Most people with panic disorder get better and stay better after cbt treatment. Panic disorder has the best prognosis of any problem a person can come to a psychologist with and can generally be treated in 12-20 sessions.

Psychotherapy consists of relaxation exercises and patients learning to identify, evaluate and alter the thoughts that are associated with their panic attacks. This is often combined with systematically approaching situations that are being avoided because of fear of having a panic attack.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder & Treatment

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is likely to affect 2% of the population at some point in their life. The disorder is equally common in males and females.

Obsessions are

  1. Recurrent or persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and inappropriate and that cause marked anxiety or distress;
  2. The thoughts, impulses, or images are not simply excessive worries about real life problems;
  3. The person attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, impulses, or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action;
  4. The person recognizes that the obsessional thought, impulses, or images are a product of his or her own mind.

Compulsions are

  1. Repetitive behaviors (for example, hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession, or according to rules that must be applied rigidly;
  2. The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing distress or preventing some dreaded event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts either are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to neutralize or prevent, or are clearly excessive.
  3. At some point during the course of the disorder, the person has recognized that the obsessions or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable.
  4. The obsessions or compulsions cause marked distress, are time consuming (take more than one hour a day) or significantly interfere with a person’s normal routine, occupational (or academic) functioning, or usual social activities or relationships.

Adapted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – IV-TR.

Obsessions are distressing and persistent thoughts that are associated with anxiety. Obsessive thoughts frequently have a theme of contamination (germs or dirt), or doubts over something that was said or done. Obsessive thoughts may have a religious theme or ideas of feeling unacceptable or immoral. Many people have obsessive thoughts that have to do with perfection, order or preciseness.

Compulsions, on the other hand, are behaviors or actions that are designed to reduce the anxiety associated with the obsessive thought. Compulsive behaviors are repetitive actions (behaviors) that are also designed to prevent a dreaded consequence from occurring. Compulsive behaviors include repetitive washing or cleaning, showering or doing some other activity in a particular order, checking, double-checking and triple-checking, etc., repeating phrases or thoughts or redoing actions. Compulsive behaviors frequently result in a reduction of anxiety and a temporary sense of feeling good. The most common compulsive behaviors are washing and checking.

Treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

The behavioral treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder consists of two components – exposure and response prevention. Exposure involves systematic, gradual contact or exposure to events in which the obsessive thoughts and -compulsive behaviors are likely to occur. For example, a person with a fear of contamination from germs might decide that it could be helpful to gradually come in contact with germs via petting a dog or a cat. This could be combined with the response prevention component of the treatment which is to not engage in the usual compulsive activity which, in this example, may be hand washing. Variations on response prevention include response delay or response restriction. Response delay means delaying immediately washing the hands for longer and longer periods of time. Response restriction, means limiting the amount of time that the hands are washed. One of the purposes of the exposure and response prevention is to see if the fear or anxiety diminishes with time and without the compulsive behavior. For most people with OCD, this a difficult and scary proposition, as their anxiety initially increases; however, many people report surprise and relief when they discover that their anxiety dissipates and disappears with time.

The cognitive component of treating OCD involves assessing and understanding the result of the exposure and response prevention exercises described above. For example, how does one make sense of the fact that no disease was contracted despite touching the dog or cat, and not washing for a significant period of time? Does this new experience cause one to rethink their assumptions about their vulnerability and the purpose of their compulsive behaviors? The cognitive therapy component of treating OCD is also designed to teach people new thinking methods and strategies that can help them identify and alter the interpretations that they have of their obsessions.

Treatment of OCD also involves learning, practicing and implementing anxiety management strategies including progressive muscle relaxation, mental imagery or deep breathing. Becoming proficient in these relaxation strategies can make it easier to approach feared and anxiety producing situations.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has shown to be effective in the treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders. Exposure and response prevention is classified by the American Psychological Association Division 12 Task Force on Promotion and Dissemination of Psychological Procedures as a well established, empirically supported treatment for OCD.